SOURCE: The Diplomat

DATE: January 3, 2019

SNIP: China Railway’s Kunming bureau recently announced that a 36-kilometer long fence will be built along the Singapore-Kunming Railway project to protect wild elephants in southwest Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region. This is a positive step, but it does little to allay concerns of the railway’s impact on elephant populations along the rest of the 3,900 km (2,400 mile) track of the Pan Asia Railway Central route. This is particularly so in Laos, where total elephant numbers are now below 1,000, and where vehicle collision is only one of many potential threats arising from China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

If current trajectories continue there will be no elephants left in Laos by the year 2030. In just 12 years, we could see the complete eradication of elephants from a country that once was known as “the land of a million elephants” (Lan Xang). So how did we reach this crisis point? What are the most daunting challenges for the future? And can Laos’ elephant population survive the advancement of the BRI?

Laos’ current elephant population is estimated to be fairly evenly split between 400 wild and 450 domesticated elephants. These dwindling numbers are the latest in a consistent trend of population decline, with total numbers dropping by almost 90 percent since 1988. Reversing this downward trend for future generations is dependent on addressing key challenges that are all likely to become more pronounced under China’s BRI, including deforestation, habitat fragmentation, human-elephant conflict, and poaching.

In November 2013 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced two ambitious multibillion dollar connectivity schemes across South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. Now estimated to be multitrillion dollar projects, the overland (“belt”) and maritime (“road”) networks seek to use major infrastructure investments across land and sea, as well as trade and transportation agreements and people-to-people exchanges, to create new corridors of economic growth and development.

Extensive academic research has demonstrated that new roads and railway projects have the potential to: increase habitat loss through logging and agribusiness; reduce the reproductive capacity of sensitive species as a result of chronic transport noise; create barriers to essential animal movement; alter forest microclimates and the distribution of specialized plant and animal species; create soil erosion and increase risk of landslides; and increase human migration into forest frontiers, causing human-animal conflict, increased poaching, logging, and forest fires.

Without active human intervention, Laos will have no more elephants by 2030. Indeed, with BRI road and railway construction steaming ahead, we may see the total extinction of native elephants in Laos before 2030. At present it seems that attempts to halt BRI infrastructure roll out in Laos are futile. The perceived economic growth potential is too tempting for “least developed” Laos to pass up, and there is simply too much money to be made by state and corporate cronies.